I Hate Salad
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world its infrastructure is virtually nonexistent. I spent about a month backpacking through some of the mountain ranges around La Paz, hiking in the Amazon, and driving through the largest salt flats in the world in the countries' southern region. I had always heard about people getting sick and the odd traveler telling horror stories about their bouts with parasites and other problems. It was perceived by many travelers as almost a badge of honor, something that proved you were a traveler that took risks and didn't care about the danger that may follow.
To be honest while I enjoyed the late night bar stories from other travelers about parasites and poisonings but I had little desire to get to know these stories first hand. The problem was I really enjoyed eating the food of the people of the country. Street food is something I feel represents the people of a given region and culture. I loved walking out of my hostel each morning and getting freshly squeezed orange juice, then having empanadas or charque de llama for dinner.
There is a section of La Paz that is about a mile long and is packed with small food stalls, the smell of burning charcoal and simmering meat fills the air. On a budget of about four dollars you are able to eat like its Thanksgiving; hot sausages with French bread, roasted pig with potatoes, balls of corn with cheese and meat wrapped in cornstalk and steamed, grilled Lama, and the ever present hamburgers. I ate this food throughout my entire stay in Bolivia without any problems, apart from maybe gaining a pound or two.
During my last night in Bolivia I was staying in the small town of Tupiza which is about an hour or two north of the Argentine border. The town is a dive; it is a small dusty old mining town that is past its prime. Tall colorful barren mountains surround the small town almost like prison walls. The streets were cracked and dusty and the city center's park was a patch of dead brown grass and tall dry trees. The few statues their along with the walls of shops and buildings were marked with red, yellow and blue political lettering and pictures of Che Guevara. The only really interesting fact of this town is that it is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed. I disliked the town from the moment I had arrived.
I had to stay in this town for the night while waiting for my bus south to the Argentine boarder. I had been away from home for about three months and I was feeling like I wanted a taste of home, at least in my mind. I went out and looked for a restaurant, there were only two to choose from and neither looked very good. I went with the one that had the most people. The restaurant was nothing more than a small store front. The door was a cheap plastic screen that dragged on the floor as I opened it and made a loud scratching sound as, causing the entire restaurant to look up at me. The brown tile floor looked as old as the mountains and roads outside, the stained white walls were covered over with Bolivian soccer posters and what I assumed were popular musicians of the country. There were about half a dozen plastic tables with plastic red table clothes held down with a plastic waxed napkin dispenser and shaky wooden chairs. I took a seat in the corner.
I picked up the stained paper menu and looked over what I could eat. I wanted something to remind me of home, I ordered a salad with some pasta bolognese and a Pacena beer. The food was terrible the salad was tasteless, the meat tasted like rubber and the pasta was overcooked and almost a resembled a creamy mash, the beer however was fine. My check was two dollars which I quickly paid and left to return to my hostel to try and get good nights sleep before my bus. I had to be up at three to get to the bus station and make sure I got on. I was woken up around midnight with some of the worst pains I have ever felt in my life.
My stomach sounded like an angry dog, forcing burps that tasted like spoiled eggs. I rolled to my side groaning, bringing my knees up to my chest and blanket over my head, trying to hide from the pain that was rolling in like waves. The pain seemed to increase with each wave, it felt like something was tearing at my insides. My mouth was dry and my tongue felt thick with a texture of sandpaper. I reached over to my night stand for my bottled water which was nearly empty and took a sip. I immediately felt ill and fell out of bed and crawled to the trash can in the corner and threw up all the water I just drank and some of the food I ate.
I didn't have a bathroom in my room; although I was offered a room with a bathroom for more money at the time I didn't see any reason to spend an extra three dollars. The only bathroom was down the stairs at the end of the hall. I went over in my mind almost dreaming that I had made it to the bathroom, only to wake up in my bed in more pain. I struggled to get the strength to walk to the bathroom, all the while cursing myself for not spending the extra three dollars to have a private in-suite bathroom.
I crawled out of bed and managed to put one flip flop on and put my shirt, I fumbled with the buttons but quickly gave up and pushed the door to my room open. I fell out of my doorway to the hallway wall and tried to balance myself on the railing. I reached the stairwell and was in so much pain I sat down and fell asleep for at least a half hour. I awoke and wished I was back in my bed and thought about going back.
I continued shaking in pain and guided myself down the stairs to the ground floor. An old woman was cleaning the kitchen and looked over at me in my old boxer shorts an unbuttoned blue shirt, one flip flop and probably smelling of vomit and sweat. She started to yell at me in Spanish and in my state at the time I understood nothing I mumbled something that was neither English nor Spanish and even I didn’t understand. She shook her head and went back to cleaning her kitchen. I found the door to the bathroom and fell inside. I stayed there for about an hour; getting sick, falling asleep, getting sick again, and again falling back asleep on the cold tile floor.
I continued this; crawling back and forth from my room to the bathroom at least a dozen times. In Bolivia toilet paper it not customarily for toilet paper to be kept in the stalls for the enjoyment and pleasure of the guests. You are expected to bring your own or buy some from the attendant. I knew this but the dozen or so trips I had made to relieve myself had quickly depleted my stash. My complete state of helplessness was in full view. I used anything from napkins, ATM receipts and old socks, I carelessly searched through the old lady's newly cleaned kitchen for paper; it was truly a low point in my life.
The next morning slowly came and my pain was still in full force. I dreaded the thought of spending any time in a Bolivian hospital, but i feared my pride would soon have to be relinquished in order to help myself. I was out of fresh water and drinking from the tap was out of the question. I knew I had to muster up the strength to walk to the store and buy water, food and antibiotics. I had no energy, I looked like a pale old man with the strength of a small child. I managed to roll myself out of bed put my shorts, shirt, flip flops, a hat and sunglasses. I stumbled to the door.
From then on I had an out of body experience. The pain I was in seemed to disappear and I was almost able to see myself walking down the dirt road. It was a clear sunny day, a high crisp blue sky set far above my head. It was cool out and the same smell of charcoal and simmering meat filled the air. I walked in to the corner store and picked up two, two liter bottles of of water a bag of Oreos, a bottle of antibiotics, a sandwich and a coke to give me a sugar rush in order to get back to my room.
I handed the man behind the counter money and left. My head started to spin and I felt weak my skin got cold and my knees gave out. I fell down on the stairs and closed my eyes drifting lightly in and out of sleep. I opened the coke bottle and took a sip, it did very little. I knew I had to get back to my small room. I got up and stumbled back down the street in full pain shooting throughout my entire body. I got to the front desk and asked for another night, I Immediately upgraded to their best room.
I was hoping for something with a TV, room service but I would settle for something with a toilet. I was now in a room which was the same size as my other room but this had a toilet with a shower head coming down from the celling in the corner of the room, a drain was in the middle of the room. The white tiled floor was cracked and stained and the walls were a shade of pale yellow as if they were coated with cigarette smoke for years. An in-suite bathroom was taken very literally in Bolivia. I didn't care I fell into the bed and the pain continued to rip through my stomach. I took a few pills and exhaustion from my walk to the store caught up with me.
The pain again woke me up about five hours later I thought it would help to take a shower and clean myself up. I thought about this for an hour or so trying to build up my strength to walk over and turn the water on. Finally I managed to get the strength to pull myself out of bed and walk over to the shower head in the corner of the room.
Showers in Bolivia, are two words that do not go together. I have come to the conclusion that nobody ever really bathes. Then showers in Bolivia, or at least the ones I have had the pleasure of experiencing are nothing more that a water pipe protruding from the wall and bent to form a shower hear. The thin rusty pipe above your head drips and has slowly been rotting away at the wall. On the end of the pipe is an small box with two exposed electrical wires, that run from the box down to the floor and into the wall. This box is the water heater and in order to operate it you need to switch the current on and connect the two exposed wires. No matter how skilled you may be as an electrician you always would end up being electrocuted.
Unless I wanted to take a cold shower I was going to have to shock myself. I turned the water on and within a minuet I had cold water sporadically flowing out of the leaky pipe. I stared at the water flowing down the tiles and to the drain in the center of the room while trying to cope with the pain. I lifted my head and looked up at the white box and two exposed wires. I touched the wires and slowly started to bring them together. Nothing. I then touched the power switch and as i lifted the small switch suddenly I felt a strong shock that pushed me to the floor and burnt my hand.
Immediately the lights and power in the entire building went dark. My hand was throbbing and bleeding, with the waves of pain still tearing my insides apart. I grabbed an old t-shirt and wrapped my burnt hand, while I crawled back onto the bed. Within a few minutes I heard a knock at the door. I groaned and a man from downstairs at the desk opened the door. He looked angry and pointed to the shower, apparently he had told me not to use the shower because it had a tendency to short out the fuse in the building.
I didn't care. I shouted back in my broken spanish,"llameame una doctor" or call me a doctor. I had given up and desperately needed professional help. I could see that the man was still angry as he walked over to the wall where a small fuse box was and opened it and replaced the fuse with a small coin. The lights came back on and the man looked over at me. He spoke quickly in spanish, of which I understood very little. The words I was able to make out were; "manana" meaning tomorrow, "vas a venir un doctor" a doctor will come. I said thank you and the man stood their with his hand out as if i should tip him.
Normally I would not tip someone for providing me a room that i had paid more to be able to have a shower and than was electrocuted by that shower but I was in no state to argue with him. I reached into my pocket and gave him a crumpled up one hundred Bolivian note, double what I had paid for my room. I asked him again for a doctor, he looked down at the note and shook his head.
Within the hour I heard another knock at my door and a voice, "doctor." A middle aged man walked in the door with a small black leather medical bag. He smiled at me and sat down in a small wooden chair and unpacked his bag. It was as if he already knew what was wrong and what he had to do. He picked up a thermometer and gave it to me. He said something in spanish and pointed to his stomach. I shook my head and said I had eaten something.
The doctor smiled and said, "solo en Bolivia" or only in Bolivia. He then reached into his bag and took a needle out he filled it with medicine. He stuck the needle in my arm without asking my permission. The doctor then placed a small bottle of pills on the desk and handed me a bill. One hundred dollars. It seemed expensive but I had no choice, i handed him some money and he told me to rest for two more days.
He closed up his bag, smiled at me again and left. The medicine that he gave me was strong, it knocked me out for a good 14 hours. When I woke up the next day my stomach was still in pain but much noticeably calmer. The next two days i spent the majority of my time taking the doctor's pills and sleeping. Finally on the third day I felt my stomach finally feel as if it was normal again. I was able to walk around my room and stretch. I wasn't one hundred percent as i could still feel how sensitive my stomach was.
I wanted nothing more than to leave the country and never come back. I got dressed, packed my bag and headed down the stairs. I paid for the room and stepped back out to the cracked dusty streets, tall barren mountains and bright blue sky. Anywhere else it would of been a nice day, i got into a cab and drove directly to the bus station and bought the next bus south.